A visiting expert to an art department is always appreciated. A visiting expert who happens to be one of the Netherlands' leading doll artists, and who stays for a few days, is the kind of visit most art teachers could only dream of.
Kilmarnock Academy recently had such a visit from Marlaine Verhelst, a dollmaker from the Netherlands and member of the National Institute of American Doll Artists. With funding from the Eden Trust, the school was able to invite Ms Verhelst to spend five days teaching staff and S5-6 pupils about dollmaking, which they have been doing as part of their Higher art coursework.
The brief was to produce work for a fictional exhibition on childhood literature for the Tate Britain. This included producing a doll which was inspired by a poem or piece of literature, and was functional as well as decorative. The majority of pupils chose to make theirs for storing or displaying jewellery.
Principal teacher of art Stephanie Lightbown stresses the importance of the piece of poetry. "The poem doesn't sound important but it is necessary to give them a focal point, otherwise they would all be making girly dolls. It forces them to go down the lines of the poem, giving them focus as well as variety."
Stacey Edmonds, 17, was looking for a poem that had lots of details, with which she could work. She came up with Edward Lear's The QuangleWangle's Hat. She says, "It mentions lots of animals such as the bumble bee, which I am using on the doll to put earrings on."
Rachel Hall, 16, chose a Little Mermaids theme, and designed a doll with a claw hand and octopus tentacles to hang jewellery on. Ms Verhelst helped her think about what would work and the best techniques to use.
Ailie McKnight, 16, has decided on a peacock theme and has dabbed two different colours of paint onto the base of the doll to produce an authentic-looking bird. "The peacock was made of papier mache and it was quite easy to make the shape. For the feathers, I am going to use small pieces of paper sewn together instead of gluing them. I haven't decided about the tail yet."
Today, the girls are working on sculpting the head of the dolls and they all gather round for a demonstration on how to construct the mouth. Ms Verhelst suggests they make it in two parts and sculpt it onto the face separately.
Mrs Lightbown has been practising this at home for weeks, so appreciates the input. "I can't describe how much difference having an expert here makes. It gives me reassurance, and the pupils confidence. If I am hesitant, they pick up on that."
In order to get as much out of Ms Verhelst's time as possible, the girls will be coming in on the weekend to work on their dolls. Having arrived at the school on Thursday, Ms Verhelst plans to show the students hair and digit making, the best way to paint faces as well as any other techniques they may need for their dolls.
Mrs Lightbown has been learning too, and building up her knowledge of different techniques. "When you are new at something, you can miss mistakes the students make, those which someone more experienced would notice immediately. Marlaine has been going round checking all the work."
With teachers from the nearby Grange and James Hamilton academies also invited, every opportunity is being taken to learn as much from Ms Verhelst as possible on her short visit. "I will make a lot more of this," says Mrs Lightbown. "It is an evolving process and we will be doing something similar next year."
Marlaine Verhelst, meanwhile, is enjoying her trip to Scotland and has been impressed by the quality of the work as well as the ideas the pupils have come up with.
"I love all the dolls," she says. "The girls are doing a marvellous job and have been working at a very high level. I am proud and happy to be part of the process."